“I grew up in Soria City, a historic Black neighborhood in Gulfport. Some of the founders were my uncles and cousins. Around the corner was the all-white Broadmoor neighborhood. The Broadmoor grocery store was at the border of the two neighborhoods, and members of both communities shopped there. I bought the Broadmoor in 2019 and want to reopen The Broadmoor with a cafe, cottage, and set of loft apartments that brings both neighborhoods together again.
Some of the first African Americans who moved to Soria City were men and women freed from cotton plantations. They worked for the railroads or for families in wealthier nearby neighborhoods like Broadmoor. They were fishermen and/or offshore men. But whatever the occupation, their dollars stayed in this neighborhood supporting the countless number of black-owned businesses. We are missing that economic vitality today.
I grew up a couple of blocks from the Broadmoor. Hurricane Camille, one of the worst hurricanes on our coast, hit in August 1969. I was eight months old, and they put me under a mattress to keep me safe.
At age three, I moved to Chicago with my parents. It was the last wave of the Great Migration. I was 12 when they sent me back to Gulfport to live with my grandmother, Artemese Robinson, and my great grandmother, Gertrude Gillum.
Our house is on the 1300 block, and the Broadmoor is on the 1200 block, a majority white block. As I walked to the store to get things for my family, I was sometimes summoned to three or four homes along the way asking me to pick something up for them.
Even as a young kid, I felt the shift between the 1300 and 1200 blocks. There was a natural, beautiful border between the two blocks—a canopy of oak trees so thick that it was like walking from daylight into midnight. It was a landscape built by God demonstrating his glory, but those trees were scary for a 12-year old black boy told to be careful not to find himself missing like Emmett Till. Fear and anxiety were all around. That canopy is still there.
One of my best friends was named Jeff Davis. He lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, and we would meet on a basketball court. As little kids, I imagined that we had the same experiences because we lived close to each other. We defied the norms of segregation, but it wasn’t until we were older that we understood the differences. We remained good friends but weren’t in each other’s weddings. There were still lines we couldn’t cross.
My family made it clear that going to college was my only option, but we didn’t have the means to pay for it. My best option was to join the military and use the GI Bill to pay for college. My grandmother gave me permission to join the part-time reserves. The recruiter picked me up in front of our house and drove me to New Orleans for processing. He not only talked me into going active, but he talked me into a job that required going to Germany. My grandmother was furious.
In Germany, I was a scout on the border between East and West Germany. I saw the same manifestations of difference that I experienced in Gulfport. There was new and improved infrastructure in West Germany, but looking through the binoculars into East Germany, it seemed they were stuck in time. Soldiers, guns, tanks, and dogs enforced the east border, but people were desperate to cross it.
After my service, I got a master’s degree in community learning and development. I returned to Chicago and started Sacred Roots to build inclusive and equitable communities. The most pressing needs are best met at the most local level when we understand a community’s assets and how they can meet needs from the inside.
I didn’t move to Chicago to escape Gulfport. I went there to live my life, but my life came full circle and brought me back home. The Broadmoor was for sale, and I bought the building to save where many of our stories and history are housed.
The Broadmoor was built in 1940, but some say it goes back much longer. It was a 24/7 hamburger shop and gas station. The store closed a few years after Hurricane Katrina, and it needs a lot of work and renovation to bring it back. I have surveyed both communities about what they want this corner to become. They want a cafe that brings them together.
The neighbors are ready and are pushing me to move faster, but I have to develop this within my means. I think the Broadmoor can become a model for transformation at the borders of communities with an awareness of how vulnerable we are to both gentrification and continual decline. I hope it helps bring back the entrepreneurship that once made this area thrive.
We used to sing songs that demonstrated a sense of collectivism in our community. ‘We shall overcome” communicates what it would take for us to move forward, to flourish as a community. That sense of collectivism is deeply rooted in me. I learned it in this community.”
Here is a link to a video of Ronnie’s interview from Soria City and the Broadmoor: https://vimeo.com/697819527
Here is the GoFundMe to help restore the Broadmoor: https://www.gofundme.com/f/restore-the-broadmoor?fbclid=IwAR3xgvVR-RQJRaymWsCrPT7BvE54o8ADewme7MW17pbiVKWlhDYQ357rAh8